South Dakota man linked to Butina pleads guilty to fraud

Paul Erickson leaves the federal courthouse on Tuesday, Nov. 26, in Sioux Falls. Erickson pleaded guilty to one charge of wire fraud and one charge of money laundering in a fraud scheme that authorities said bilked at least $2.3 million from 78 people. (Abigail Dollins/The Argus Leader via AP)

SIOUX FALLS (AP) – A South Dakota man linked to a Russian agent said little Tuesday as he pleaded guilty to fraud charges unrelated to the agent’s case.

Conservative political operative Paul Erickson admitted to a federal judge that he operated fraudulent investment schemes. Prosecutors say Erickson, who pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering, bilked investors of more than $1 million.

Erickson’s onetime girlfriend is Maria Butina, who was deported last month to her native Russia after admitting that she sought to infiltrate conservative political groups to promote that country’s agenda.

Erickson, 58, was originally charged with 10 counts of money laundering and one count of wire fraud. He pleaded guilty to the wire fraud charge, which prosecutors said involved a variety of business deals over 20 years, including developing elder care homes, a wheelchair that allowed a person to use the bathroom from the chair, and building homes in North Dakota’s booming oil fields. Prosecutors said he falsely promised investors returns of up to 90% in as little as three months.

As part of the plea deal, prosecutors dropped all but one of the money laundering charges. The one he ultimately pleaded guilty to involved sending $1,000 from his scheme to a person listed only as “M.B.” Erickson ignored a reporter who asked whether that was Butina.

At the hearing, Erickson quickly answered the judge’s questions but volunteered little else about the charges.

Last week, Erickson’s lawyer, Clint Sargent, noted that the deal would “resolve all charges” against Erickson over many years “and this ordeal for Mr. Erickson will come to an end.”

Erickson came to the attention of the FBI in 2016 when a woman selling land in the North Dakota oil patch told law enforcement that he was using her investment idea to convince people to give him money.

Erickson is scheduled to be sentenced in March. Victims will have the opportunity to make statements at that hearing.

Federal prosecutors have indicated they will seek prison time. Erickson may also face up to $500,000 in fines.

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